by Roger Klinger
Summer’s lush abundance is in full throttle throughout our mountain oasis, and the woods are filled with the beauty and bliss of nature’s extravagant wild gardens. It is such a joy to take a deep breath of fresh mountain air, walk into the forest and be enchanted by the beauty of life that surrounds us all. I was in Highlands, NC, recently, giving a private wild foods program through No Taste Like Home. The tour was designed for an extended family; the grandmother was celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary, and they thought an educational walk in the woods foraging for plants and mushrooms would be the best way to celebrate their lives, with three generations all gathered together in the forest.
Wild edibles were in abundance everywhere, and due to the higher elevations and rainfall patterns, summer mushrooms were beginning to pop out. Reishi mushrooms were producing heavily on stumps and dead hemlock logs in the forests — the blight has taken a high toll in these parts of the mountains. The upside of this devastating tree disease is that reishi love and need dead hemlocks to grow, and other animals also benefit from the decaying logs, which provide habitat and shelter. But hemlocks, like chestnuts, are such graceful trees that it saddens me to see so many ancient huge trees dying from an introduced insect pest.
A highlight of the hike was finding an abundance of Indian Cucumber Root growing in the deep woods. This is one of my favorite wild plants, as its design and structure are so perfect and beautiful. I often think that Georgia O’Keeffe would love this plant; its symmetry and grace is right up her alley.
Indian Cucumber, Medeola virginia, is a member of the Lily family native to eastern North America, its range extending from Ontario to Nova Scotia and south to Florida and Louisiana. Indian Cucumber prefers deep, rich, moist woods and grows 1 to 3 feet tall. It has hairy, unbranched stems, and the leaves are whorled and lance-like, with an entirely smooth margin. Plants that are going to flower have two tiers of leaves, with a lower whorl of five to eleven leaves and an upper whorl overhanging the flowers. Some plants lack a second tier of whorled leaves, which is only produced when the plant flowers. These dainty and beautiful two-tiered plants can grow to 30 inches high. The small flowers have yellowish-green tepals that appear in late spring and are worth looking at closely, as they are stunning little ballerinas. The fruit is a dark blue to purple, yielding inedible berries above the top tier of leaves.
I first discovered this plant while hiking in the wilderness areas of West Virginia. My first mentor and dear friend, Mark Garland, showed me a large clump of these plants and explained that they are not common enough to harvest many, but since that stand was so large he would dig one for me, since everyone should experience this plant fully once. He dug way down through the deep forest litter at the base of one plant, and to my amazement, carefully pulled up a 2-inch, pure-white tuberous root. We brushed the dirt off and tasted the root together. Some memories are embroidered into the fabric of our living souls, and this is one I will always remember, for that tiny wild root was a revelation to my senses and I felt like I was tasting the essence of spring itself — crisp, sweet and utterly delicious. I am so enchanted by this plant that I have decided to harvest a few seeds and try to grow it in our newly created edible and medicinal teaching gardens on our land in Fairview.
Indian Cucumber Root was used by the Iroquois medicinally in an infusion of the crushed dried berries and leaves, given to treat convulsions in infants. The root is said to be diuretic and the tubers are high in vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
Indian Cucumber Root is now on the endangered list in Florida and Illinois, and even though I find it fairly often here in the deep woods and mountain forests, my policy generally is to appreciate the beauty of these forest gems but to let them grow and flourish on their own.
However, in Highlands, since it was a special anniversary and the stand of plants was prolific, I decided that the grandmother needed a special memory and treat, so the whole family was able to take one very tiny bite and enjoy the gift given from this special plant. What is wonderful to me is how this experience in 2016 simultaneously re-awakened a delightful memory from 40 years ago in my own life!
When I see Indian Cucumber root growing in abundance, I always feel it is a sign of a healthy, pristine forest habitat. Enjoy the many-faceted gifts of our Appalachian summer, and remember that we are privileged to live in such a diverse and enchanting world, surrounded by nature’s beauty and grace.
Contact Roger at firstname.lastname@example.org.